What is deliberate practice?
For the uninitiated, deliberate practice is a focused form of practice wherein you proactively look for improvement in whichever craft you’re trying to become better. Deliberate practice was first advocated by Anders Ericsson, who suggested that the top performers in any field reach the levels they do through deliberate practice. Think Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Magnus Carlsen. Anyone can practice deliberately though, and improve her/ his level at a rate much faster than others’.
How is deliberate practice different from the practice that most of us go through?
Most of us don’t actively look for improvements. (Note, improvements can come from your own observation as well as that of an expert, say a coach, who is supervising your practice.) Think of typing on your laptop. How many of you think of ways you can improve your typing speed? Hardly any. Little wonder typing speed and accuracy remains more or less the same even after years of typing. Take swimming. When we first learn swimming, we improve fast. And then we plateau. That’s because in the beginning you actively spot errors and improve, but after a while your strokes become automatic. Automaticity is the enemy of improvement. In contrast, professional swimmers keep looking – often through the help of a coach – for improvements even when they attain a high level.
You would have possibly heard of 10,000-hour rule to become an expert in any field. (That again was propounded by Anders Ericsson.) Those 10,000 hours won’t make you a top performer if you let automaticity creep into your practice. You’ve to keep practicing deliberately. You’ve to keep looking for improvements, stretching your limits little bit every time.
Without further ado, here are examples of deliberate practice from different fields:
Deliberate practice in sports
When an amateur golfer swings towards a flag some distance away, he tries to get the ball as close to the flag as possible. But he is not sure how far away the flag is and what trajectory the ball took. If the ball doesn’t go as intended, he is not sure why the ball deviated: grip, alignment, club speed, or something else.
In contrast, a professional golfer during practice sessions is focused on details that will help him improve. Jack Nicklaus, the legendary golfer and a master in deliberate practice, had a clear idea of what he wanted to get out of his practice session:
I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a very sharp, in focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First I ‘see’ the ball where I want it to finish, nice and high and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I ‘see’ the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing.
A professional golfer will have a much more detailed feedback on each bad shot. After each unintended outcome, he’ll know the precise reason behind it, and he’ll adjust his next stroke accordingly. He’ll also have an independent perspective of a coach who can offer inputs on small technical glitches that the player may not have noticed.
When a professional golfer faces a difficult lie (‘lie’ in golf means the position of the ball on the ground), he makes multiple attempts to master that difficult shot, so that he knows what exactly to do when he faces a similar lie in a competition.
This is so unlike amateur practice.
When Serena and Venus Williams were young, their father, Richard, asked them to serve at traffic cones to improve precision.
If you look at Roger Federer’s incredible resurgence in 2017, you’ll see that this was a result of improvements he made – more attacking game and greater consistency in backhand to name few – when on a long layoff after 2016 Wimbledon. This is what Marin Cilic said on Roger Federer after losing to him in 2017 Wimbledon final:
I think his ability and his desire to continue to improve is definitely one of the best in the game. Even at his age now, he’s still improving and challenging himself to get better. All credit to him and his team for finding ways to get him to another level [emphasis mine].
Improvement is the key. That’s the foundation of deliberate practice. However, when we see top sportspersons on song, we often erroneously assume their performance to be a result of their inborn ability.
Cricket bowlers often bowl at a single stump to improve their accuracy (in a real match, there are three, and it’s relatively easier to hit them). Similarly, batsmen practice with narrower bats, even with a stump or a baseball bat, to improve reading the trajectory of the incoming ball.
Studies on figure skating have found that elite skaters regularly attempt jumps beyond their current capabilities, and therefore fall much more than regular skaters.
Brazil’s preeminence in soccer has been credited to the unwitting deliberate practice youngsters go through when playing futsal, a variant of soccer.
Futsal is played on a smaller field with a smaller ball with less bounce. These stark differences combine to make futsal a much faster game than soccer (according to a Liverpool University study, futsal players touch the ball six times more often per minute than soccer players), which requires sharp passing and quicker reaction. That’s why when futsal players take to full-size soccer game, they see lots of gaps and spaces on the field.
Deliberate practice in writing
Benjamin Franklin, widely believed to be the most accomplished American of his time, became better at writing through what we now call deliberate practice. At 16, he was bad at writing. Determined to improve, he picked few good pieces of writing from one of his favorite magazines, The Spectator, and encapsulated the message briefly in few sentences. Then, he set his notes aside and came back to them after few days to expand them in his words. (If you write within a short span of time after reading something, you’ll subconsciously copy the style you read. But if you space reading and writing by few days, then your writing won’t be influenced.) After writing the piece afresh, he then used to compare his work with the original and learn where he was lacking.
To quote Benjamin Franklin:
I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
And in order to improve structure in his writing, he scrambled up his notes on a particular article, waited few weeks, and then rearranged them into the most logical order he could think of. To quote him again:
I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts.
And after he rearranged the sentences, he compared them with the original to know how he did.
That’s seeking improvement, and not just mindlessly churning out paragraphs.
I too have deliberate-practiced writing in my own little way?
When reading a book (I read non-fiction books), I slow down on three random pages. These three pages take me 15-20 minutes to complete, many times more than what I take in normal reading. On the three pages, I actively notice choice of words, grammar rules (or how they’ve been broken), variation in length of sentences, transitory words between sentences, transitory sentences between paragraphs, punctuation (especially comma, which can be confusing), and so on.
By learning almost 4-5 times a week from the very best, I could fast-track my progress in writing.
Deliberate practice in education
Start with gaining conceptual clarity on a topic, say differential calculus or coordinate geometry. (If you haven’t, then consult your friends or teachers to get it. Or if need be go back to the simplest of books, even those from previous grade.)
Then attempt the simplest problems in that topic. If you get stuck on a problem, resist the temptation to immediately refer to the solution. Make an attempt or two, and if you can’t get through it, come to it after a day or two. Make another attempt. This process of stretching your limit on problems which are slightly beyond your ability improves your math skills. That’s deliberate practice. Solve as many problems as you need to feel confident at that level of problems. And, in the process, if you come across a novel method or a difficult problem, mark it for later reference.
Then graduate to slightly difficult problems and repeat the above process.
And then raise your level further.
Why do you note down the novel methods or a difficult problem? Hint: earlier in the post you read about how professional golfers practice more on difficult lies.
It’s to not get thrown off-guard when you face similar difficult problems in a real test. When you see someone scoring high even in a tough test, you believe they’re really strong in the subject. However, the main underlying reason for their strength isn’t their genius. The reason is that they encounter less surprises (compared to average students) in the real test. This is similar to how professional golfers look so different.
Guess what, I followed this process to improve my math from mediocrity to exceptionally high level. I’ve written about it on Quora.
Vocabulary building or communication
This is how I have adopted deliberate practice to improve my vocabulary. I note down words that I want to use (and not just know the meaning of), their meaning, and how they’re used. Here is a screenshot containing two words:
(Whereas the text in italics are examples of how the word can be used, the not-italicized text is the meaning of the word. Some of the usages may look too simple (example: slice of pizza) to you, but the real purpose is to include not-so-common usage such as those underlined in red.)
Now, after I’ve gone through the word, its meaning, and usage, I look at the list of these words (second screenshot) after a day to try recall the meaning (sometimes, a word may be used in 5+ different ways) and reel off 4-5 examples where I would use this word. Sometimes I get stuck struggling to think of more than 2-3 examples and sometimes I rattle off 7-8. Although it’s little discomforting, the effort has improved my vocabulary, and more important usage of it, tremendously. For the same set of words, I repeat the process after a week, a month, and three months to make it embed even further. (This is called spaced revision. I’ve used it in multiple scenarios, and it works beautifully.)
Another exercise in vocabulary-building I practice is to come up with appropriate words to describe a situation, object, or action I see around myself. (I do this mainly during commutes, and in just 15-odd minutes, I can practice as many as 40-50 words.) This practice, in my opinion, is the closest to real-world usage of words. There is no point in cramming the meaning of words if you can’t recall them when speaking or writing (remember, while speaking, you’ve to recall appropriate words in a fraction of second). The above practices have enabled me to actually use the words, and not just know the meaning, while speaking and writing.
You may learn more about my experience here:
Deliberate practice in business
Learning through case studies
Business schools heavily use case studies to teach MBA students. A case study, in nutshell, mimics a real-world business problem that has already run its course. As part of the case study methodology, basic facts of the problem are provided to the students, who then mull over different course of actions they would take to solve the problem. (In real world, problems are fuzzier and solutions can take many different paths. This is very unlike solving two math equations to get one perfect answer. Or pointing out exact one or two mistakes in a wrong sentence in English.) Moderated by an instructor, the students then discuss different solutions they’ve thought of. At the end of the session, the instructor discloses what solution was actually worked (remember, the problem has actually happened in the real world and solved).
Case studies have few advantages. One, of course, is that they tackle a problem that the students are likely to encounter in the real world, and not a theoretical one. Two, they stretch themselves while considering multiple scenarios that fuzziness of the problem forces on them.
Learning through customer feedback
Receiving feedback on one’s performance (that’s what reveals areas of improvement) is a key component of deliberate practice. One of the key ways business organizations get this feedback is from their customers. You must be using multiple products and services daily and you would know what’s good and what’s bad about them. That feedback can be a valuable source of improvement for the organizations. They can double down on the features that are resonating well with the customers and purge those that many customers are complaining about. Amazon is probably the biggest exponent of this customer centricity.
Yet another example is lean methodology, which many startups adopt (now even behemoths are) to fine-tune their offering. Startups which follow lean methodology, launch a minimum viable product (not a full-blown, feature-rich product, which could be very expensive and time consuming) and then ruthlessly focus on how customers are reacting to the product. They learn about customer reaction through different analytical tools and customer interviews, and then they incorporate this feedback to improve their product. Note, a bloated, feature-rich initial product may have to be completely redone on receiving customer feedback, which could prove to be an expensive proposition.
Deliberate practice in typing
Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, gives example of how his mother didn’t improve her typing speed despite several years of practice:
Think of how most of us go about our lives. My mother was a secretary for many years and, before embarking on her career, went on a course to learn how to type. After a few months of training she reached seventy words a minute, but then hit a plateau that lasted for the rest of her career. The reason is simple: this was the level required to gain employment, and once she had started work, it hardly seemed important to get any better. When she typed, she had her mind on other things.
She spent decades typing, and yet…. What was lacking was seeking improvements? When she trained to get the job, she could raise her typing speed because she sought improvements. But not thereafter.
Hours don’t necessarily translate into improvement. Hers is a classic example.
Deliberate practice in speed eating
On 4 July 2001, Takeru Kobayashi gulped down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes to win Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, New York, the most prestigious and challenging speed-eating competition in the world. In the process, he smashed the world record. By how much? Hold your breath… the previous world record was a measly 25.125 hot dogs in the same time. Aren’t world records supposed to be broken by tiniest of margins?
In complete contrast to the top speed-eaters, who were tall and hulky… he was lean. A rank outsider, and yet he did the unthinkable.
What he did was deliberate practice of sorts? Constant improvements.
In the days leading up to the competition, he practiced and, more importantly, experimented like a maniac. For example, instead of eating the hot dog as a whole – which was the common practice – he broke it in half. He experimented eating the hot dog and the bread separately rather than together. While hot dogs were easy to gulp down, the doughy, chewy bread posed challenge. So he tried multiple methods to make ingesting the bread easier: he tried eating it after dipping in water, he varied the temperature of water, and he even sprinkled vegetable oil on the wet bread. In nutshell, in the buildup, he ruthlessly focused on improving the tiniest part of the eating process.
You may watch him here competing in a similar speed-eating competition (duration: 2:51 minutes).
Deliberate practice in making well-designed presentations and documents
Few years back, I used to dread making Power Point Presentations (PPT). My most creative work with PPTs used to be keying in text in the text boxes in standard slide templates. This inability to work with PPTs was making me overly reliant on others, which was rightfully annoying to them. One day I decided I’ve to change.
My PPT journey started with deconstructing a polished PPT from a friend. I poured through each and every slide to learn what building blocks came together to create that slide.
In my first attempt, I could understand – and use – only few elements (inserting text boxes and shapes). On difficult elements, I sought help from the person who created the PPT. After his inputs, I attempted those elements on my own. In few days, I learnt inserting text boxes, images, and shapes; playing with drawing tools; colors and effects; importing charts and tables from Excel documents; animations; transitions; and creating slide master, albeit at a basic level.
My next step took me to a much higher level.
After acing the basics, I started downloading professional PPTs from the internet and trying to re-create them from scratch. I did this for 20 minutes every day, sometimes barely finishing one-third of a slide. In 2-3 months, I could see profound improvement in my PPTs. During this time, I was improving so fast that my 6-week-old work seemed prehistoric.
Deliberate practice in speaking
My favorite example of deliberate practice in speaking is that of Demosthenes, a statesman and the finest orator in ancient Greece. As a young man, he suffered from speech impediment, but he was determined to improve. According to legends, he spoke with pebbles in his mouth, which made him exert super-hard to get the words out. Practicing with stones improved his diction.
And to improve the projection of his voice, he practiced speeches while running and in the backdrop of the roar of ocean.
His methods may be awkward, but they forced him to improve. And that’s what is critical in deliberate practice.
Another example is from Freedom English Academy (FEA), a non-profit organization founded by Deepak Chopra, the well-known author and public speaker. FEA works with disadvantaged youth in India mainly to improve their communication skills (in English) so that they can access better employment options.
I visited few FEA centers. Students at these centers were unwittingly deliberate-practicing. During one of the speaking exercises in a small group of around ten students, students were immediately corrected by others in the group whenever they made a mistake (say, in grammar) while speaking. Immediate feedback. Immediate improvement. And if the students fail to provide the feedback, the facilitator does.
Deliberate practice in art
Those who can’t draw think that either you have it in you or you don’t, and if you don’t then you just can’t draw. (As far as artistic fields are concerned, I too held that belief till recently.) Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, narrates how dramatically people improved their drawing skills after taking a five-day course on the subject. On the left in each of the two columns in the image below is the drawing before the course, and on the right is, after the course.
The participants could improve their artistic ability, which most of us think is not malleable, because they first learnt different components of drawing (that’s expert feedback) and then drew, getting feedback all along.
Deliberate practice in healthcare
Traditionally, doctors and nurses have trained through lectures, case studies, experience sharing, demonstrations, and hands-on practice. However, they may not get a medical case for many of the skills they learnt for long, hence eroding those skills over time. (Recall, how much you retain of what you studied in school or college or other training if you didn’t use it regularly.)
These days, however, nursing and medicine fields too are adopting deliberate practice to continually improve clinical skills through simulation. These simulation sessions can be recorded, and the practitioners can review the videos and get feedback from others to learn areas where they can improve. One big advantage of simulations is that they don’t require real cases (which can be a bottleneck) and hence can be practiced anytime.